How connected are slavery, bonded labour and caste-based discrimination issues?

6th October 2016

On 15 September 2016 the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Urmila Bhoola, presented her annual report to the Human Rights Council. This year her report focused on global trends of debt bondage, reflecting the information received from a range of stakeholders who completed the SR’s questionnaire on bonded labour.

The report outlined that ‘debt bondage, also known as bonded labour, is one of the four practices similar to slavery’ and are closely related to different forms of exploitation, including forced labour, trafficking and child labour. The SR  noted that a global trend of debt bondage ‘can be seen whereby vulnerable people, including those belonging to minority groups, indigenous people, women, children, people determined as being of low caste, and migrant workers, are disproportionately impacted by debt bondage’.

The report highlights that debt bondage practice is widespread in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal ‘despite the specific prohibition on such practices within the legal frameworks of these countries’ and those trapped in bonded labour are ‘reportedly predominantly Dalits, persons of “low” caste’.

In February 2016 DSN-UK and READ (Rights Education and Development Centre) jointly completed the SR’s questionnaire, sharing their first-hand knowledge of debt bondage in India, Tamil Nadu, under the sumangali scheme.

In 2013 Dalit Solidarity Network UK funded by TRAID (Textile Recycling for Aid and Development) started working in partnership with Rights Education and Development Centre (READ) to End the sumangali Scheme in South India, where textile and garment products are made for big brands and retailers by girls and young women from low caste backgrounds under exploitative conditions. Girls and young women are recruited by brokers to join the so-called ‘Sumangali Thittam’ or ‘Marriage Scheme’, promised they would receive a considerable amount of money at the end of three to five years of employment.



Previously a sumangali worker at tailoring training READ/DSN-UK project


[/ezcol_1half] [ezcol_1half_end]This exploitative scheme is tantamount to bonded labour because employers withhold part of the workers’ wages until the end of the ‘contract’. Workers are severely restricted in their freedom of movement and privacy. The majority of the workers are Dalit (outcaste) girls younger than 18, from poor families who are lured in with the promises of a decent wage and the lump sum payment upon completion of the contract that may be used for their dowry.

The SR referred to our submission in her report, paragraph 19:[/ezcol_1half_end]In the western and central parts of Tamil Nadu, a high number of adolescent girls reportedly work as bonded labourers under the sumangali scheme in textile mills and garment factories, which is a major hub in the global knitwear sector that supplies international brands. The majority of these workers are reported to belong to Dalit communities and are aged between 14 and 18 years. Debt bondage is also reported in power loom workshops located in the Tirupur region of Tamil Nadu, which produce woven cloth both for domestic manufacturers and for global suppliers. Those affected by debt bondage in this region are reported to include members of Dalit communities and other poor communities and to include both men and women. Furthermore, some non-agricultural industries in which debt bondage among children is reported to exist include carpet weaving, beedi making, silk production, silk sari production, the brick kilns and stone quarries.

Urmila concluded her report by stating that bonded labour is ‘a complex and multidimensional form of contemporary slavery that impacts on individuals across the world’, particularly people belonging to minority groups, including women, children, indigenous people, people of “low” caste and migrant workers, in numerous sectors of the economy. She indicated that debt bondage prevails due to governments’ failure to ‘implement effective legislation on debt bondage’ and included three pages of recommendations to eradicate the practice.

IDSN advocates for Dalit rights internationally and monitors a number of mechanisms referring to caste-based discrimination. Conveniently IDSN compiled all of the references to caste discrimination at the UN, including mentions in statements at the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council and the UN treaty bodies.